Wanted: Strong, healthy girl who can teach German to two boys, take care of a bedridden elderly woman, and sew for the household. Wages: $3 per week.
On December 19, 1886, a twenty-year-old Wilhelmine Friederike Moscherosch stepped off the passenger ship Werra at Ellis Island, New York. In the pocket of her handmade coat, she had a copy of the governess ad from the newspaper, as well as a page of instructions to help her reach her new job in Chicago, still hundreds of miles away after the long voyage from Bremen. She also held a gold piece worth $5, given to her by her grandparents. She was alone, spoke very little English, and had the entire world ahead of her.
Wilhelmine (“Minna”) was born in 1866 in the tiny town of Sindelfingen, Germany, near Stuttgart. She was the eldest of eleven children, and when she was not attending school, there was always work to do at home. She expressed an early interest in sewing when she heard, at the age of five, the story of Snow White. Her mother discouraged playing and daydreaming, so Minna asked her grandmother for scraps of fabric with which to make a Snow White doll, and her grandmother helped the girl piece together a tiny figurine from a potato, and a miniature costume from a bit of wool. Minna was hooked, and became known for her talent with a needle and thread. She made clothes for her brothers and sisters, then began to take in seamstress work, which she did in her spare time. The earnings from her sewing went into her savings, and when she was twenty, she finally had enough for the journey to America. She answered an advertisement for a German tutor and caretaker in Chicago and was on her way. The five dollar piece, her grandparents told her, was an investment in her future. “Your square hands are beautiful,” her grandmother said, “because they can make things, and you can accomplish whatever you wish if your head and heart are right and hands are willing.”
Chicago was bursting at the seams with growth, and for a young “steerage girl” who barely spoke English, there was a lot of catching up to do. When she wasn’t occupied with governess duties, Minna dove headlong into her studies of the English language, putting her gold piece toward English lessons. In 1887, Julius Schmidt, her sweetheart from Sindelfingen, arrived in Chicago, and the two married in October of that year, beginning a partnership that would last 63 years. Together, the two attended the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which gave Minna the idea to teach dance and drama. Julius and Minna opened a small dance school, The Locust Studio, where Minna gave private lessons. Her talents became sought after in the small circles of artistic and creative people in Chicago, and soon she was designing and manufacturing the necessary costumes for amateur plays and pageants. The demands of her creative work became a full-time occupation, and Minna left her governess job so that she and Julius could open the Schmidt Costume and Wig Shop at 920 N. Clark Street.
The shop, which sat across the street from the Newberry Library, was the country’s first shop dedicated to costumes and wigs. In 1915, Minna and Julius purchased the building for their endeavor, which specialized in costume making and rentals, and expanded to include Minna’s dance and drama lessons in an upstairs room. By the 1920s, the business was a million-dollar enterprise, which employed twenty people, including Julius and Minna’s two sons, and saw as many as 6500 costume pieces rented in a single day. The Schmidt sons, Edwin and Helmut, eventually stepped in to manage the day-to-day activities at Schmidt Costume and Wig so that their mother could move on to explore other interests. She began by organizing the Costumer’s Association of Chicago in early 1921, and enrolled in law school that same year.
In 1924, at the age of 58, Minna Schmidt graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law, after taking evening and Sunday courses for four years. “I merely took the course in law to improve my mind and make me fit for the many things I plan to do in the future,” she explained to the Pontiac Chautauqua, “When I use my knowledge of law it will be in doing simple helpful things for the good of humanity.” Her thesis, “Ancient Laws and Customs and the Evolution of the Status of Women,” reflected her interest in the role of women in history, a role that saw triumphant expansion in the 20s. A stickler for detail in historical costumes, Minna decided that in order to become an able historian of fashion and clothing, she needed to put her research skills to work. Following her law degree in 1924, Minna traveled to Madrid, Cairo, Paris, and Jerusalem, searching for examples of authentic costumes from a variety of time periods. She studied history, art, and literature to learn about the minute details of fans and shoes, beards and bustles. She applied all of this knowledge to the creation of a series of wax figures, built by her son Helmut, each of which Minna costumed according to a specific time period. While she worked on the figurines, she also started the Chicago Schmidt College of Scientific Costuming in 1927, where she offered lectures in period costuming and opened her extensive costume library to her students. In 1929, she returned to Chicago-Kent for her Master’s degree. That same year, she became a lecturer in professional costuming at the University of Chicago.
Minna’s first set of figurines were based on women who she believed were “representatives of true womanhood.” The figurines were women who had been mothers and wives, and who had served their communities in some way. The first series, titled 3000 Years of Fashion, included 120 historical and literary figures, from the Bible’s Eve to a flapper from the 1920s. The series was so successful that Minna continued with a second: together with the Chicago Historical Society, she selected and researched a group of women and created a series of seventy-two wax figurines. For her third and most expansive series, Minna chose women from all levels of society, and wrote letters to representatives of foreign countries asking them to list four or five outstanding women and provide biographical information and portraits. The resulting series included four hundred historical female figures, for which Minna authored a book, 400 Outstanding Women of the World and Costumology of Their Time. The large series was displayed at the 1933-34 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Minna Schmidt used her success and wealth to help others, as she had always dreamed of doing. She financed the education of seventeen brothers, sisters, nephews, and cousins, bringing many over from Germany to live in Chicago. In her later years, she set aside money for the educations of great-grandchildren, noting that her grandparents had done the same for her with the five dollar gold piece. She financed a hospital for women and children in her native Sindelfingen, and donated her Evanston mansion to Northwestern University at the age of 90, when she went to spend her final years in St. Mary’s Hospital. Minna’s figurines, which were donated to historical societies, Catholic schools, and libraries, have not withstood the test of time. Portions of the collections have been split amongst private collectors as many institutions to which Minna willed them have closed over the years. The wax figures have fallen victim to time and its endless supply of dust and decay, but the story of Minna Schmidt, the girl from steerage, survives, and it is a story which cannot be told without the recognition of the hundreds of years of accomplishments of women who came before her, and that is, perhaps, her greatest “simple, helpful thing” for the good of humanity.
Kertz, Jane. “Figurines Are Relics of Woman’s Career.” Chicago Tribune, 15 March 1956: N8.
Lyon, Marge. “Centuries of History Live in Her Museum of Figurines.” Chicago Tribune, 1 February 1953: 6.
“Minna, Famed As Costumer, Is Dead At 95: Mrs. Schmidt Noted for Figurines.” Chicago Tribune, 10 December 1961: A19.
“Minna Schmidt, LL.D.” Pontiac Chautauqua, 1929: 33.
“Minna Schmidt (Moscherosch).” Evanston Women’s History Project.
“Mrs. Minna Schmidt Honored; 50 Years in Costume Work.” Chicago Tribune, 30 December 1936: 16.
Osborne, Georgia L. Brief Biographies of the Figurines On Display in the Illinois State Historical Library. 1932.
Schultz, Rima Lunin and Hast, Adele. Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. 2001.
“Woman, 58, Gets Her Law Degree Here This June.” Chicago Tribune, 28 April 1924: 2.